BEHIND HE SCENES
An interview with Mr. T. G. John, Managing Director of the Alvis Company.
AS the Alvis concern have, since the war, been so much to the fore in the development of the really fast light car in this country, it was with special interest that we called On Mr. T. G. John recently to obtain his views on things in general, and sports cars in particular.
Mr. John, who founded the .Alvis Company, and is their managing director, did not enter the motor industry until comparatively recently. In fact he received his early training in the Navy, and the high efficiency and dogged persistence of the firm he now controls, is doubtless due in no small measure to the influence of the Senior Service. At the beginning of the War, he was with Armstrong’s in charge of aero engine development, and this made him even further qualified to produce a fast car, and with this in mind he founded the Alvis concern in 1919. We felt, continued Mr. John, that there was a definite market for a really high performance light car, and decided to cater for it. At the time this class of vehicle was not made in this country, so we experimented and put the first Alvis on the market. This was a 10 h.p. two seater and had a 4-speed gearbox which was a novel feature on a car of this type. It was not a cheap car as it was priced at about £750 but it was really fast, and we entered it right away for competitions, and as in those days there was a hill climb or speed trial nearly every week in the season, we did pretty well and Cleared up quite a few events. We had intended to stick to the 2-seater body, which was what we called the Zephyr body, built with a steel tube frame, covered with aluminium panels and strengthened with bracing wires after aeroplane practice. This was extremely light, but had the disadvantage that it magnified noises more than a wooden frame, and as later customers demanded bigger bodies to carry four People in reasonable comfort we dropped this type. Those who found they liked going fast also found they
wanted to have a similar performance with more like touring comfort, and we increased the size and strength of the chassis.
We did not make any special racing cars and all our competition work was done on hotted up standard jobs. Our first big success was the winning of the 200 mile race of 1923 with an ordinary unsupercharged car at over 93 m.p.h. and we then felt we had really shown that the Alvis could go fast. In 1924 the famous Talbot trio came home 1, 2, 3, and due to Ware’s accident in his Morgan, there was some confusion in the lap-scoring. However it was eventually sorted out and it turned out that we were 4th, 5th and 8th and we were pretty satisfied. Next year we increased our engine size to 11.9 h.p. and about this time we had a good day out after records, and did 700 miles in under 8 hours, getting 39 records. We also did well at Shelsey-Walsh hill climb, as the President’s cup for touring cars was won by Alvis 3 years in succession. However you don’t want to hear a list of things we have won, anyone can get those from the catalogue, though one performance we were specially pleased with was the 1500 c.c. standing start records, for the mile and kilometre, at 80.84 m.p.h. and 72.27 respectively.
We continued to enter standard cars for as many events as possible and though we naturally did not always win, we learnt a lot and we nearly always managed to finish. In the 1925 George Boillot cup race at Boulogne both the Alvis cars finished, and were the only British cars to do so, and we were still rather alone in this class against foreign competition.
With regard to racing expenses you wanted to know if our shareholders grumble about what we spend on racing. Well for one thing we don’t spend a great deal as all the cars we race are built from standard material so they cost no more than any others, and for another we find racing successes are a great help to business.
Of course if we did as some firms have done in the past, and built special ” freak ” cars, it would not cut much ice when they won, and the expense would be terrific, but a good deal of our racing is done for us by private owners, on standard cars.
Then you were asking about front wheel drive. Of course everyone wants to know about that, and some people have suggested we have given up selling F.W.D. cars. This is not so at all, and we have some in production at the moment, but although it is one of our standard models, it is a special type for a special purpose, and we don’t wish people to buy them who do not really want them. We had a case the other day of a clergyman who had been sold a front wheel drive supecharged saloon to use for visiting in his parish ! That is an example of what may happen if a car which is at present intended for a special type of work, i.e., really fast road work, is ” pushed ” as the type for everyone.
Cases like that do much harm to the development of a new idea. Front wheel drive will come, as it is theoretically correct and has been shown to have many advantages in practice. The tractive effort is always in the direction you want to go and not straight ahead as in the present type.
However the present type is now more suited for general use and when the new type is recognised as generally desirable we shall be in a very nice position. Not only have we had valuable experience but we have developed a considerable number of patents which will put us in a good position. Any new idea takes time to mature and become approved by the publk but it is the people who get ahead and work on it instead of waiting till it is asked for who are the ones who will reap the benefit. I have personally avoided one or two serious accidents in my own front wheel drive car by executing the most violent swerves which in an ordinary car would have most certainly inverted it. There has been a lot of talk about whether a front
wheel drive car is difficult or dangerous to drive, and I can only give an instance of a driver taking one over who was completely strange to the type and driving it in a race. One J.C.C. 200 miles race George Duller was to drive one of our cars, and they duly arrived at Brooklands a few days before the event for practice. The first thing we found with Duller’s car, was that there was no oil pressure, and this meant stripping the lower part of the engine to fit a new oil pump. The work was eventually completed but not in time to give George Duller any chance to try the car. We said it was too risky to take over a car of a new type which he had never driven in his life, but he was not worried. He said ” Cottenham has sent me a wire telling me how to drive it, so that will be all right ! ” The instructions amounted to the words, “When in doubt step on it, and steer.” This applies to all F.W.D. jobs and is where people get into difficulties. When you are taking a corner too fast the one thing which will pull you round is the engine if the drive is in the direction you want to go which in front-drive cars it is. Well, Duller started in that race, and led to the first bend, and went into it much too fast to be pleasant, and got into a terrific skid. But he remembered his
injunctions and put his foot down hard and he just came out of it and went round, and was well up in the race till the engine had some more oiling trouble. Of course Duller, we know, is a first class driver, but no one on earth could drive a strange car in a race at over 100 m.p.h. and get away with it if there was anything radically wrong with the idea, and we claim it to be radically right. We have had engine trouble of course, everyone who races has some, but we have never had any bother with the front wheel drive. A good example of the luck of racing is to be had from our recent 1,000 miles record. We sent down a car to see if it was all in order for the record ; after all one of the first essentials is that the car should be capable of the necessary speed as well as being able to last ! This engine proved quite up to expectations, so much so that they thought they would improve matters a bit, and se if it could be made fast enough for the hour record. ‘ It was doing well over the 100 mark without being too much hotted up but they then put on a larger blower and started in to “make it go.” It soon came up to near the speed they were after, and was doing about 116 m.p.h. on the lap. The car had a very high third and it was sometimes done to change into third to go on to the members banking. They decided that it liked third and was a bit overgeared in top, so they tried a complete lap all out in third ! Result —a wire to the works that they had “thrown a
con-rod,” and please they would like another motor. Of course racing engines are not built in a day, and we had not got one specially tuned to this pitch. Still we wanted that record, and there was nothing for it but to take an engine out of production and send it down. They got it, ran it a bit to get everything right, and got the 1,000 miles and several other records ! And owing to a stop on the way which put them behind schedule, they had to lap at 107 m.p.h. for some time to pick up again. Oh yes, it’s a great game building a high efficiency car, but you have to keep very much awake to avoid
getting left behind, and there is no doubt that without competitions and racing it would have taken another ten years for us to get as far as we have now.